Understanding my father.....
My father was an impatient man. That much was how I remembered him. When he was at his foulest, he was at his scariest. Four of us would totally freeze when he rages on in the small confinement of our three-room HDB flat at Commonwealth. Over the years, my mother received the full blunt of his anger. But of course, as we grew older and he accepted Christ, my father changed. He’s more meditative now, calm and collected - more subdued (seems like I am describing a person who had been “lobotomized” eh?)
I related this story because I wanted to understand why my father was the way he was at that time. What made him the person I remembered him to be, that is, impatient and hot tempered. I was interested to know because being his son, I realized that the apple did not fall very far from the tree. I was also an impatient father. Although I kept it under control most of the time, there were occasions when I flew off the handle. During such handle-flying times, my wife and my children would be at the receiving end. No doubt I would apologize after that, almost immediately, and apologize most sincerely. But these are the moments I am not proud of.
One day, my son, who is 11, came to me and said, “Daddy, I notice you are different from mommy.” I squinted at him and asked, “How so?” He smiled and said, “You always apologize.” Well, I guess I had more to apologize for than my wife.
But, what made me my father’s son (besides that fateful night and all that jazz....stop it)? Is the son the father of the man? Can we grow out of our past or genetic makeup and change for the better? Is character and personality mostly inherited? I know I am throwing the gauntlet down on the age-old debate about nature, nurture and maybe culture. But still, the conundrum persists, why do we act the way we do? If genes is destiny, how is it that some of us can rise above our inherited traits and become captains of our lives? And if our environment is fate, why is it that some of us can excel even in the worst of circumstances?
One does not need to look too hard for examples. The tumultuous life of Oprah Winfrey shows without a doubt that one’s birth environment does not determine one’s future. She was born out of wedlock, sexually abused, even allegedly raped by her cousin, sexually promiscuous at 13 by “selling sex to boys”, pregnant at 15 whose son died a month later, and still she struggled her way out of the chrysalis of pain and shame to emerge as one of the wealthiest women in the world. One of the events that shaped her life was her pregnancy and the death of her son. At the lowest point of her young life, her father told her this, “God has chosen to take this baby, and so I think God is giving you a second chance.” Her life’s trajectory changed after that defining moment.
I guess this tribute by William Blake did not go far enough to describe human nature, “Every night and every morn, some to misery are born; Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” Nevertheless, that’s just the first half of men’s story because we have never been limited by either our genes or our circumstances. Our birth does not dictate our life thereafter. We are adaptable, flexible and versatile enough to change both the world around us and the world inside of us. That basically explained why more than 90% of the species have gone extinct except us. We survived. We thrive. Alas, the fruits of our enduring labor have resulted not only in the mastery of our own circumstances. It has also resulted in the coming jeopardy of our own survival.
In fact, those who have no illusion about our ability to scale up to the top of the food chain would find it hard to deny what Mark Twain has to say about our kind and our nature. “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel…And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “universal brotherhood of man” with his mouth.”
So, taking the grand tour back to my own backyard, is it nature or nurture that made my father what he was then and what I am today? I guess this puzzle will not be solved in the near future. Behavioral science would be equally stumped. There are just too many variables in the individual human equation to expect the sums to be as simple as a case of “this” plus “this” will yield “that”. Often, when it comes to human behavior, that is, why we are the way we are, and why we end up like that, I cannot say with confidence whether it was due to our genes or our family upbringing or our social environment or a defining moment(s) in our life that is the prevailing and consistent culprit.
In essence, the causes and effects affect each other and as they affect each other, they reinforce each other. And such reinforcing only makes it harder to pinpoint the underlying causes and to distinguish the causes from the effects. What’s more, you cannot in all good conscience condemn a life before it ends because if that child of yours was Oprah, you would not only be dead wrong, you would regret it for the rest of your life.
Of course, I am fully aware that there are surely some “checkmates” in life and they are in one’s mutated genes go wrong. For example, if you are born without a properly functioning right orbital cortex due to some pre- or post-natal mishap beyond your control, you will be biologically disadvantaged in developing a conscience. This means that you basically have no control over your impulses, be it lust, anger or hunger.
I guess this would account for people who cannot control their urges to take upskirt videos along the waiting lines of MRT trains, to view the rear end of a donkey as both relishing and sexually irresistible, to want to smell the buttocks of young girls because it gives them an unusual tonic high, to lie with corpses as a form of sexual release, to bite off the nipples of their victims as a way of satisfying their inner lust, and to steal, kill and rape without apology or remorse.
They are the classic, clinically diagnosed psychopaths and this is a very honest, down-to-earth opinion about them by a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology Essi Viding, “Psychopaths don’t change…They don’t learn from punishment. The best you can hope for is that they’ll eventually get too old and lazy to be bothered to offend. And they can seem impressive. Charismatic. People are dazzled. So, yeah, the real trouble starts when one makes it big in mainstream society.” Mm…charismatic and making it big in mainstream society? Reminds me of some dead people I know…living also.
Anyway, how about upbringing? What can we say about those who were abused at a young age and still make it in society, having adapted well and having started normal families of their own? And those who have the silver spoon stuck to their mouth for the longest time and are totally maladjusted in society, still totally dependent on their parents at their thirties, or god forbid, forties?
Take this story about three young daughters I read in the newspaper for example. They are aged between 11 and 14. They come from a broken home. The headlines read, “S’pore mum tries to kill three filial daughters.” On December 2009, their mum, a divorcee, planned to kill her three daughters and herself in a suicide bid because she was in deep financial crises. Fortunately, the eldest daughter managed to escape. She then sought help and all of them were rescued. It is reported that the three young girls are currently staying with their grandmother, whilst their mother, who had been working in a nightclub since 15, was homeless.
One can only imagine the daily trauma that these young girls had to go through without the much-needed maternal care and attention. It would then be only natural to expect them to grow up in rebellion, unable to receive and give love, and having a broken self-esteem. But contrary to expectation, the three girls actually saved up their ang pow money and gave it all to their mother. The mother was so touched by this that she admitted, “I regret what I had done. I have decided to start afresh and will not give up on life as I have three caring daughters.” An extract from the report reads, “The daughters said they missed their mother but would not cry in front of her as they did not want her to worry about them.” Let me end the story with this tearjerker. The second daughter actually told the reporter this, “I have no more money to help my mother but I will start saving again.”
Maybe a befitting caption here as a tribute to our human spirit can be found in these words by William Ernest Henley, Invictus, “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
The lesson I’ve learned here is that people do change. That is what we do best at. Except for bona fide psychopaths, most people change in the end for the good; at least that is how I choose to see humanity for now. Because we are society that values virtues more than vices, I sincerely believe that there are more positive influences in this world than there are negative. And like a change in the weather, or a change in temperature, positive influences are like persistent nudgers that point us in the right direction.
You see, we may lose our way along the way but since the sun is always more overwhelming or empowering than the night, we will eventually find our way back again. Some may find their way after one or two detours. Others will take longer than the rest. But return they will because coming home is a road that is never lost to us.
So, have I understood my father after this brief excursion in thoughts and writing? Have I even come close to understanding him? I can’t say in all honesty that I have. He is still quite a mystery to me. No doubt he has changed over the years and we have chatted up more often now – though still a little awkward. But if someone would to ask me to explain my father, his motives, his psychology, his makeup, I would still be hard pressed for words, theories or flow charts.
You see, even if his anger or impatience in the past have been due to some genetic mis-wiring or some circumstantial misgivings or some relational misunderstanding or all of them in varying combination at varying times with varying frequency, there is still one thing about him that I cannot deny. He is still my father, that is, the one who most logically has to exist for me to even exist, or even thrive.
And being a father myself with children of my own, I guess it is the positive transformations that I now see in him that makes imperfections in fatherhood such a challenging, endearing and embracing enterprise when it is brought to its most anticipated and fruitful end. Cheerz.